One of the secrets of time management for the busy linguistic professional is to know what to read. I rely on two sources to guide me.
First and most important, I rely on my colleagues. If they recommend something, I generally rush off to take a look. Why so obedient? Because I really trust my colleagues’ judgments. Not only do they know a good paper when they read one, they also know have very good taste in topics, i.e. they know which are worth worrying about and which a waste of time. They know a good argument, analysis, criticism, proposal when they see one and, equally important, can spot work that is best left undisturbed by human eyes. In other words, they have judgment and good taste and so their recommendations are golden.
Second I rely on reviews. I love reviews. These come in two flavors: reviews by those whose taste and judgment you trust and those (let’s dub these “Inverse” reviews (IR)) by reviewers whose taste and judgment you don’t. Both are very very useful. You can guess why I value the former. They strongly correlate with “worthwhiledness,” (W). But the latter are also very useful for they are full of information (in the technical sense: viz. they inversely strongly correlate with W). After all if someone with execrable taste and barely competent analytic abilities loves a certain piece of work, then what better reason can one have to avoid it. And the converse holds as well: what better recommendation for a book than a negative review by one whose taste and competence you deplore. One could go further, praise from such a source would be reason enough to question one’s own positive evaluations!
Why do I mention this? For two reasons. First, I recently came across a very useful review of what I took to be a very good and enlightening book about the Minimalist Program. The book is Of Minds and Language. Here’s a review I did with Alex Drummond. Happily, my positive reaction to this discussion about Minimalism was seconded by this very negative review here. Faithful readers of this blog will recognize the deft comments of CB. With characteristic flair, CB pans the book, and applies her keen critical analysis to Chomsky’s every (imaginary) faux pas. So there you have it; a strong recommendation from me (and Alex) and, if possible, an even stronger inverse recommendation (and hence a definite must-read for the wise) from CB.
One last point: despite the utility of reviews like CB’s for people like me, they do have one failing. They don’t really engage the subject matter and so do not add much to the discussion. This is too bad. A good review is often as (and sometimes, more) interesting as the thing reviewed. Think of Chomsky’s famous review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior for example (here). IRs despite their great informational content are not really worth reading. As such, a question arises: why do journals like the Journal of Lingusitics (JL) and review editors like Peter Ackema solicit this kind of junk? True, Ackema and JL are doing a public service in that these reviews are excellent guides about what to read (remember inverse correlations of quality are reliable indicators of quality; all that’s needed is a handy minus sign to reveal the truth). But really, do Ackema and JL really think that this adds anything of substance? Impossible! So why do they solicit and print this stuff? I think I know.
Taken in the right frame of mind, these kinds of reviews can be quite entertaining. I think that JL has joined the Royal Society’s efforts (here) to lighten the tone of scholarly research by soliciting (unconscious?) parodies. It’s probably a British thing, you know Monty Python Does Scholarship or Linguistics Beyond the Fringe. Or maybe this stuff reads better with a British accent (I still think that half of what makes Monty Python, The Goon
Squad Show (thanks to David P for correction) and Beyond the Fringe funny is the accent). At any rate, it’s clear that the editors of
these journals have decided that there’s no future in real scholarship and have
decided to go into show business big time (not unlike Science). I have nothing against this, though I do think that they
should have warned their readers before including parody in their pages. But
now you are warned and you can read these papers with pleasure, all the while
also extracting lots of useful information, as one can from perfect negative
Oh yes: I am sure that CB will be busy correcting my errors in the comment sections. I will refrain from replying given my policy of refraining from engaging CB ever again, but this should not prevent you from enjoying yourselves.